A West Virginia State College graduate who became one of the first five African Americans to graduate Army Air Corps pilot training before leading two all-black “Tuskegee Airmen” fighter groups into combat during World War II has been inducted posthumously into the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame.
George Spencer “Spanky” Roberts was born in London in eastern Kanawha County. He grew up in Fairmont and graduated in 1934 at the age of 15 from Dunbar School, the only Marion County high school available to black students during the segregation era.
Roberts then enrolled in West Virginia State College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical arts in 1938, and enrolled in a new civilian pilot training program at Wertz Field, an airport adjacent to the college, the following year. After earning his pilot’s license, Roberts entered the first class of the first Air Corps’ aviation cadet training program open to African-Americans at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, graduating in early 1942 as one of the first five Tuskegee Airmen.
During World War II, Roberts led the 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group in more than 100 combat missions ranging from beach landing support for infantry troops to bomber defense.
After the war, Roberts returned to Tuskegee to teach air science and tactics, then served at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia as the first black commander of an integrated Air Force unit. He later served in the Korean War, was director of support for all Air Force fighter aircraft in Vietnam, oversaw the F-104 fighter jet program for the Air Force, and was in charge of all missile defense ground radar installations in North America before retiring as a full colonel in 1968. He died of a heart attack in 1984.
Roberts logged more than 6,000 hours as a command pilot during his career and was the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, seven Air Force Commendation Medals and two Presidential Unit Citations.
Roberts was nominated to the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame by Nick Keller, assistant director at Yeager Airport, and the author of the recently released illustrated history book “Yeager Airport and Charleston Aviation.”
“I learned about Mr. Roberts while researching my book and thought if anyone deserves to be in the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame, it’s him,” Keller said.
Roberts is the Hall of Fame’s 11th inductee. Several members of his family attended the induction ceremony, held last week at Snowshoe Mountain Resort. The West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame, created in 2015 by the West Virginia Airport Managers Association, is located in the North Central West Virginia Airport passenger terminal in Bridgeport.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.